We are now three episodes into the third season of American Horror Story, and this time around it’s all about witches. Subtitled Coven, the season is centered around a school in New Orleans that teaches and protects young witches, and the events shift between the early 1800s and the present day.
Though the series is of course the work of fiction, there’s actually a whole lot of truth behind some of the major characters in Coven, with both Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett playing women who were fixtures of New Orleans culture back in the 1800s. How much of what we’ve seen is fictionalized and how much is based in fact? Let’s take a closer look at the real stories behind their characters!
The first episode of American Horror Story: Coven began in 1834, with a flashback sequence that introduced us to Kathy Bates’ character Madame Delphine LaLaurie – an evil woman who has a torture chamber in her home, where she mutilates and murders slaves. Proving that the truth is more frightening than fiction could ever be, this depiction of the woman is pretty much 100% based in fact.
Born in 1775, Delphine Macarty became Delphine LaLaurie in 1825, when she married her third husband Leonard Louis LaLaurie – her previous two husbands both died under unknown circumstances. It was shortly thereafter that her reign of terror began, purchasing and building onto a mansion on New Orleans’ Royal Street that served as a hot spot for lavish parties. LaLaurie became well-known and well-liked due to her frequent galas, events that masked the true evil that laid beneath her extravagant gowns and friendly smile.
Slave quarters attached to the mansion held several black slaves, and many soon caught wind of the fact that LaLaurie was particularly brutal in her treatment of them. Though she was reportedly kind to the slaves in front of others, rumors persisted about her barbarity, and the LaLauries were found guilty of illegal cruelty after one of their neighbors witnessed Delphine chasing a 12-year-old slave girl up to the roof of their mansion, where she fell to her death.
It was in 1834 that Madame LaLaurie’s true nature was fully revealed. In an attempt to end her suffering, the LaLaurie’s seventy-year-old cook set fire to the kitchen on April 10th of that year, a suicide attempt that drew crowds of people to the mansion. Police and fire marshals found the woman chained to the stove by her ankle, and when bystanders expressed concern about LaLaurie’s slaves, wondering why they were nowhere to be found as the house was burning to the ground, LaLaurie reportedly told them to only worry about saving her valuables.
A handful of men went into the home in search of the slaves, breaking down the doors of the mansion and eventually coming upon the slave quarters. Inside, they found a more horrific sight than they could’ve possibly imagined; a room full of mutilated men and women, some hung by their necks and others so emaciated and injured that they couldn’t even walk.
At long last revealed as the monster many believed she was, LaLaurie was run out of her home the following morning, forced to flee in a horse-drawn carriage after a mob of angry citizens showed up at the mansion. Though they destroyed the majority of the LaLaurie home, Madame Delphine managed to escape in time, and her whereabouts from that point on were never known. Subsequent investigation of the grounds revealed that several bodies had been buried there, with the remains of a child and others being unearthed from the yard.
Where American Horror Story of course takes liberties with the tale of Madame LaLaurie is in her demise, the show’s writers playing up her mysterious disappearance by explaining that it was Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau who was responsible for her disappearance. Towards the end of the first episode, we find out that one of the slaves LaLaurie had tortured and killed was the lover of Laveau, who exacted her revenge by granting LaLaurie immortality and then burying her alive. In reality, LaLaurie apparently died in Paris in 1842, the result of a boar-hunting accident. Though LaLaurie and Laveau were both in New Orleans at around the same time, and had likely crossed paths, there are no reports of the two ever actually being involved in any way.
As seen on the show, the LaLaurie mansion on Royal Street has been reconstructed and still stands today, and was in fact bought by Nicolas Cage back in 2007. The property has since been purchased by a financial corporation, and it remains a popular New Orleans tourist attraction.
Angela Bassett plays the aforementioned Marie Laveau, a woman who was in real life a renowned Voodoo practitioner. Dubbed the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Laveau was and still is an incredibly mysterious and iconic figure in New Orleans culture, most details about her life shrouded in secrecy.
Nobody knows exactly when she began practicing Voodoo, an interest that led many to label Laveau as an evil witch – though all reports indicate that she was anything but. She helped take care of the wounded at the Battle of New Orleans, nursed the sick during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of the 1850s and would even soothe and comfort prisoners on death row – by all accounts a good person, rather than an evil one.
So, did Laveau actually possess magical powers? Most stories indicate that she was essentially nothing more than your run of the mill psychic, the woman people would go to when they wanted to have their future predicted. Since many feared the so-called Voodoo Queen, Laveau used her reputation to get what she wanted out of people, and many believe that the only power she truly possessed was the power to manipulate others. She apparently used a network of spies to obtain inside information about residents, which she would then dazzle them with when they came in for readings. Much like the psychics of today, all signs point to Laveau being nothing more than a scam artist – one who was given credit for any and all strange and miraculous occurrences in New Orleans during her reign as ‘Queen.’
Where things get really interesting is that Laveau had fifteen children with a man by the name of Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, who she lived with after her first husband mysteriously disappeared. One of the children was a daughter they named Marie, who has been the source of much confusion over the years. Marie Glapion apparently took over for her mother sometime in the 1870s, keeping the legacy alive by essentially becoming the second incarnation of Marie Laveau. After Laveau passed away in 1881, there were many reports of her being spotted walking around town, which only furthered her mystique. In reality, it was her daughter people were seeing, who bore a striking resemble to the original Voodoo Queen.
Thousands of visitors still make a pilgrimage to Laveau’s gravesite each year, captivated by her mysterious life. Though she likely had no more of a connection to the supernatural than you or I, she will nevertheless forever remain the reigning Voodoo Queen of not just New Orleans, but of the world at large.
I don’t want to spoil anything that could be coming up on the show, but I do want to mention that in episode six of Coven, which is set to air November 13th, Danny Huston’s character ‘The Axeman’ will make his first appearance. Much like LaLaurie and Laveau, the Axeman is also a character based in fact.
An active serial killer in New Orleans between May of 1918 and October of the following year, the Axeman was named after the brutal series of murders he carried out, where he would smash down the doors of homes and viciously attack those inside with an axe.
The killer taunted police with letters stating when we would strike next, which revealed a bizarre passion for Jazz music. The Axeman promised to never enter the homes of anyone who was playing Jazz on the nights he planned on carrying out his dirty deeds, which led some to believe that the entire purpose of his killings was to promote Jazz music.
Whatever the reason, the Axeman claimed at least a dozen victims in the time he roamed the streets, killing both men and women alike. You can read detailed accounts of each of the murders over on Wikipedia, if you like the idea of not being able to sleep at night.
To this day, the real identity of the Axeman has never been discovered, joining the likes of Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer as one of true crime’s greatest unsolved mysteries.